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Taking it to the Streets

 

Corbitt, J. Nathan and Vivian Nix-Early. (2003) Taking it to the Streets: Using the Arts to Transform your Community. Baker Books, 286pp.

 

OVERVIEW

The arts are central to the cultural development of our communities and the personal development of our youth. In the United States, just look at Hollywood, MTV and the fashion industry and note what powerful forces they are in shaping our shared identity.  Christians, however, have too often been judgemental and fearful reactionaries in the artworld rather than bold and proactive shapers. Nathan Corbitt and Vivian Nex-Early's book is perhaps the first comprehensive study revealing how the faith community is beginning to step up and become leaders in revitilizing their neighborhoods through the arts. Both artists themselves and professors at Eastern University in Philadelphia, their book moves from laying the theological and practical foundations for the arts in transformation to models and case studies of artists, churches and organizations involved in such transformation.

In part 1, the authors begin by taking us through scripture to see the goal of transformation - the New Jerusalem, or as they coin it, the "NU JERUZ". This new kingdom is marked by:

  • planting of new vineyards (urban gardens and rooftop vegetable gardens)
  • new and rebuilt reuins: houses, schools, community centers
  • new community fabric: new attitudes and a spirit of unity
  • pride in the gifts, talents, and accomplishments of those dwelling in the community
  • long-term friendships, relationships, and commitments
  • fellowship, reconciliation, and celebration across race, class and gender lines
  • rebirth of the church (praise and worship) outside its conventional walls
  • renewed aspirations and career dreams
  • academic success and creativity
  • economic and small business growth and a viable consumer base
  • holistic health care provision
  • renewal and celebration of the community's culture, history and people (51)

The authors go on to explain that as we learn to incorporate the whole of creation and ourselves in the transformation of communities, the arts cannot be ignored. "The arts," they write, "are a part of the kingdom of God and, as such, have a role to play in the transformation process as we work to bring about the NU JERUZ." (59) Moreover, "the goal of transformation is to bring people into a right relationship with God, each other, and their environment. It is to seek peace, justice, well-being, and redemption in the spiritual, social, economic, emotional, physical and political lives of people, communities and societies." (67)

They rightly caution against idolizing the arts' role in the transformation process:

"Art in redemptive transformation is not a panacea or stand-alone activity. Art is often the missing link in the transformation process and will greatly enhance personal or social change when used in collaboration with other disciplines or fields. In other words, art has no meaning without people. Art alone will not bring about transformation, just as bringing economic development to a community without considering the aesthetic experience of the residents cannot alone improve the quality of life - which is one manifestation of transformation." (65)

As they unpack this creative transformation, they offer a three-pronged model which they call A.R.T. (Art in Redemptive Transformation). (See Ch 3 for a detailed description). The first stage is "Critical awareness" and involves attuning people to a problem or issue; the second, "Working out" entails people, communities and societies working through the problem through creative strategies until it is resolved; and the final stage is "Celebration" where the success of reaching the goal is publicly celebrated. Corresponding to these three stages are three art typologies: the "prophetic arts" (raising critical awareness and centered on justice), the "agape arts" (committed to community and personal development and marked by compassion) and "celebrative arts" (devoted to community and personal renewal through praise and worship).

Sections 2 through 4 of the book provide models and case studies to illustrate the three different typologies of the A.R.T. paradigm.

Looking to the prophetic arts we see street actors, reggae musicians, hip hop artists and mimes, much like the prophets, calling people's attention to social and economic injustices and personal depravity while offering redemptive hope through the Gospel.  One signficant lesson from this section is the critical need for an incarnational approach. "...[A]rtists who are not related to a community often have little communicative power of identity and relevance, two key components of effective communication." (147)

As agape artists show, the arts can also play a significant role in community economic development, personal healing and empowerment as well as education. For this section, the authors build on the asset-based community development model pioneered by Kretzmann and McKnight and the faith-based strategy identified in John Perkin's three R's (relocation, reconciliation and redistribution).

The Sandtown Children of Praise Choir in Baltimore is an excellent model of community building. It grew out of a few people relocating into a poor neighborhood, starting a church and slowly responding to the needs of the area.  "Everything that started at Sandtown was started 'tiny'," observes the authors, "and follows the 'start small' principle of social change articulated by Ray Bakke in A Theology as Big as the City." (184)

The arts can also be utilized for economic gain. Economic development models include a printing shop begun by Tony Campolo (Camden Printworks) to train and employ at-risk youth as well as a recording studio, (Asaph Studios) also working with at-risk youth and offering training and flexible work.

In regards to human development, studies clearly indicate that the arts are instrumental in healing, well-being and rehabilitation for those that are sick or in high risk environments. Gallery 37 in Chicago works with at-risk youth to develop them as professional artists. One of their former students who came from a rough background and went on to complete a BFA, recounted the transformational effect of the program on his life: "My old life died here. As I sat in church so many Sundays and watched my cousins disappear to violence and jail and dead-end jobs, art resurrected me as a new person. " (218)

Moreover, the arts can be a powerful tool in working with prison inmates. Citing recent statisics, the authors write:"art programs are attributed with having reduced infractions of prison rules by 75-81 percent and are reducing recidivism (return to prison withint two years) to 31 percent, compared to 58 percent for all parolees..." (220)

And, in education, studies show that students involved in the arts do significantly better in academics than others. (242) (See our article review "The Arts are Basic to Achievement"). One successful case study from this section is the Creative Pride program in Atlanta that provides consultation and support for schools wanting to integrate the arts into their classrooms.

The final section rightly culminates in renewing celebration. "What do we mean by celebration in the Nu Jeruz?," they ask. "It is not so much a celebration of the fall of our enemies...but a celebration of renewed spirits, minds, bodies and communities. The milestones in our lives bring joy out of sadness and should be celebrated." (250) Here the authors offer illustrations of concerts, mural projects, and churches using the arts as a symbol of the redemptive reconciliation of humanity with God, with each other and with their creation.

The books' thoroughness leaves little more to be desired. Corbitt and Nix-Early thoughtfully lay a foundation that is grounded in scripture and applicable to practitioners through their use of the A.R.T. paradigm. The case studies and models are all evaluated throughout the book according to this model, which at times may feel a bit contrived, but is useful for clarity, teaching and application. There is even a website connected to the study (www.urbanprophets.org) as well as a non-profit organization which they started, BuildABridge International (www.buildabridge.org) that does a variety of community arts work locally and overseas, in addition to providing training. 

For all those seeking to be relevant tools of transformation for the kingdom, this book is essential reading.

 

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION & DISCUSSION

  1. What struck you most about this book through the review?
  2. What has been your experience (in your church or community) of the arts being used for tranformation?
  3. What would be some dangers to using the arts for transformation?
  4. Why has the Church been slow to take advantage of this tool?

 

IMPLICATIONS

  1. The arts need to be considered in the transformation and renewal of communities and people.
  2. To the extent that we don't use the arts, we will be behind the leading arts institutions such as Hollywood and MTV in shaping it.

Christen B. Yates cCYS